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Curry: Make it right or don't tell the chef
by Matthew Amster-Burton
August 26, 2000
Curries on display, Chatuchak Weekend Market
If you're going to be a hardass about your cooking and insist that people treat your recipes as if they were formulas for distilling nitroglycerin, and if you insist that substituting cane sugar for palm sugar is an affront to all the Thai people, you'd better be one hell of a cook.
Fortunately, Sarnsern Gajaseni is. Gajaseni, better known as Chef San (pronounced like "Sam," not like the Japanese title), heads up the Thai Cooking School at the Oriental Hotel, Bangkok. I was fortunate enough to spend the morning at the school one beautiful Wednesday scribbling down notes as Chef San demonstrated his übertraditional take on Thai curry. The most frequent word in my notes is "never."
I don't mean to give the impression that our instructor was stern-faced and frowned over his wok like a surgeon removing appendices. On the contrary, he was eccentric and good-humored, peppering his lecture with anecdotes and tangents. At one point he went from giving alternate names for holy basil to a jeremiad about how they should change the name of the country back to Siam. He also endeared himself to me by using "tasty" as a synonym for "spicy."
The Oriental's cooking school is the most prestigious in Thailand and a frequent destination for overseas chefs, food writers, and anyone else willing to cough up the $120 per class. Summer is a slow time for Bangkok tourism, and the only other person in my class was Michelle, an English homemaker originally from Vancouver, BC. We were welcomed onto a private boat at the pier behind the hotel and crossed the Chao Phraya river to the Oriental's private hideaway in the Bangkok suburb of Thonburi.
Why a whole class on Thai curry? Well, it's literally and figuratively hot. A recipe featured in the book Best American Recipes 1999, Salmon in Sweet Red Curry, is in fact a very ordinary Thai curry, but the authors call it "a showstopper" and CNN reports that President Clinton, Yasser Arafat, and Ehud Barak ate it during the peace talks at Camp David. CNN played this as a "no news from the summit" item, but hey, I was riveted. Curry is also a major source of culinary pride in Thailand. Su-Mei Yu, author of the new cookbook Cracking the Coconut, calls it simply "the signature dish."
Most of all, though, making curry reminded me of how serious the Thai are about fresh ingredients. You can add one or two dried spices to your paste without causing Chef San palpitations, but you can also make a perfectly good curry using no spices at all. In fact, while Thai cuisine is "spicy" in the sense of hot, dried spices are never a central feature--herbs and chiles are. One of the greatest treats of the class was when Chef San placed before me a sprig of fresh green peppercorns for tasting. I broke one off, chewed it, and sighed as I imagined all the things I would love to cook with this pungent ingredient but can't because fresh peppercorns are unavailable anywhere in the continental United States.
Thai curry starts with chile paste, a concentrated and fiery mash of basic flavoring elements. The two key Thai chile pastes (according to Chef San, they should not be called "curry pastes," because those are Indian) are red and green, which contain:
Never (there's that word again) put water or oil in your chile paste--it will do nothing for the flavor and will only make it spoil faster. There is also a yellow paste, colored with turmeric, hailing from the south of Thailand, and a brown spice-laden paste called Matsaman that is derived from India, but we didn't cover these in class; they are made and used similarly to the red and green paste.
POT AND SPICY
Perhaps I've not given a clear enough picture of just how eccentric our instructor was. Upon hearing that my classmate Michelle was originally from Vancouver, BC, he smacked his forehead and went into a lengthy tirade about how Vancouver has surpassed Thailand in producing the world's highest quality marijuana. "I don't know if that's something we should be proud of," said Michelle, but Chef San was sure that this boded ill for the future of Thai agriculture.
You can use practically any proportion of these ingredients and come up with a delicious base, but here's a tasty starting point. Chef San recommends using odd numbers for superstitious reasons and adjusting the number of shallots and garlic cloves depending on what type of meat will go in your curry. For fish and shellfish curries, use more shallots; for meat curries, more garlic. You can also make a satisfying vegetable curry with, say, green beans, bell peppers, and diced potato. But you can't make a vegetarian Thai curry--the shrimp paste and fish sauce are key to what makes the curry Thai rather than Indian.
THAI CHILE PASTE
Serves 4 in curry dish
9 dried red chiles, soaked,
or 30 small fresh green birds-eye chiles
7 cloves garlic
1 tsp peppercorns (black or white--I like Tellicherry)
1 tbsp coriander root, chopped
5 tbsp lemongrass, chopped
7 slices galangal
1 tsp kaffir lime rind
1 tsp shrimp paste
Pound into a paste with a mortar and pestle, or blend in the food processor and then finish with mortar and pestle. Expect this to take 30 minutes. The right consistency is like stiff creamy peanut butter. You can't achieve this in the food processor alone, and if you even try it, Chef San will find out about it and your ass will be lemongrass. Keeps in the refrigerator one month or the freezer indefinitely.
Of course, you can also use commercial chile paste. Chef San grudgingly allows this, but advises pounding in some fresh ingredients to brighten the flavors. Mae Ploy brand is made in Thailand and widely available in Seattle. Chef San also recommends Mae Planom, Mae Sri, and Mae Nittaya. ("Mae" is Thai for "mother," so these names are like "Mother's Cookies," I suppose.)
If you happen to be reading from Thailand, you can buy your paste at a shop or stand. I saw one chile paste stand at Chatuchak Market that offered no less than a dozen different pastes in huge, smooth mounds.
The Twofold Path
Not all Thai curries are loaded with coconut milk. In class, we learned that there are two distinct types of curry: city and country. The city curry is the one you've had in Thai restaurants. Country curry, made with water replacing the coconut milk, is deliciously light, not far removed from a soup. Both use chile paste as their base, but Chef San cautions against using green paste for country curry. He didn't say why, however, and it sounds tasty enough to me. I'll give it a try and report back if anything explodes.
EGGPLANT ON OUR FACES
Laurie and I were having lunch one day by the Democracy Monument and had each ordered a curry. In mine I found what I thought were peas, but were much more crunchy and bitter. In hers were wedges of a green-and-white mottled vegetable that we guessed might be an heirloom tomato. It turns out that both are types of Thai eggplant.
You may want to vary how you cook the meat, depending on what it is. If you're making a shrimp or chicken curry, you're probably better off adding the meat last and simmering very briefly until it's cooked through. In Thailand people tend to like their meats, including shellfish, cooked well beyond where Westerners would stop. One of the dishes we had in class was shrimp cooked in the shell for nearly twenty minutes in a sweet glaze. They are then eaten with the shells on. It's the most concentrated shrimp flavor imaginable, and the chewy texture really isn't bad at all.
The class was largely demonstration, but Chef San let me stir his shiny brass wok a few times. He stroked my ego by remarking that I must be a food professional because I put my other hand in my pocket when I stir. Later I caught him doing the same, but it might have been just for my benefit. We made two curries in class, one city curry with small pineapple chunks and shrimp and one country curry of beef and eggplant. For the city curry, cooked and shredded whitefish was pounded into the chile paste, a step recommended by Chef San to shore up the fish flavor of any seafood curry.
After the class proper, Michelle and I sat down to a banquet consisting of the dishes cooked over the course of the morning and many additional plates. The pineapple shrimp curry was served in a hollowed-out pineapple ("It's simple to do," said Michelle, who had been kept after class the previous day to work on her fruit-carving technique). We had the largest prawns I've ever seen, split down the middle with their heads and legs still on. There was a whole broiled catfish, its meat juicy under the blackened skin. Hard-boiled eggs were deep fried until puffy, halved, and served with a dipping sauce. I taught Michelle how to eat in proper Thai style, bringing food to the mouth with a spoon. Everything was delicious, but the pineapple shrimp curry was the clear winner--it had a richness and flavor balance that have remained in my taste memory for weeks, and I'm planning to make it at home as soon as I get a proper mortar and pestle. In the meantime, I've made some frankly impressive city curry using Mae Ploy paste.
I have two criticisms of the class. First, since Chef San made such a strong case for using fresh chile paste, he should have demonstrated how to pound it in the mortar and pestle. Second, three shrimp dishes at one meal was excessive--a fowl, fish, or pork curry would have been an excellent change of pace. Oddly, at the end of class we were presented with several bags of dried spices, most of which are rarely used in Thai cooking. Chef San didn't actually say, "Never use these spices I'm about to give you," but I have a feeling he was thinking it.
Gaeng Pa Neua Yang
Grilled Beef Curry Country-Style
9 dried red chiles, soaked
7 cloves garlic
1 tsp peppercorns
1 tbsp chopped coriander root
5 tbsp slices lemongrass
7 slices galangal
1 tsp kaffir lime zest
1 tsp shrimp paste
2 cups sliced grilled or
5 tbsp fish sauce
1 tsp palm sugar
1 cup chopped eggplant
1 cup holy basil
1/2 cup sliced, seeded serrano pepper
1/2 cup shredded kaffir lime leaves
5 cups water
Gaeng Kua Sapparos Goong
9 dried red chiles, soaked
5 cloves garlic
1 tbsp sliced lemongrass
3 slices galangal
1 tsp shrimp paste
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 cup boiled and chopped whitefish meat
3 tbsp tamarind water or
3 tbsp fish sauce
2 cups diced pineapple
1 cup large shrimp, shelled and deveined
3 cups coconut milk
shredded serrano peppers for garnish